Concubine. Astrology. Death of a friend. Reflections on salvation, beauty, learning.
Augustine accounts for his years as a twenty-something. In public he followed a career as a teacher and man of rhetoric. In private he professed a false religion. He confesses his shame and folly in order to glorify and praise God. He sees his life then as ‘falling about on slippery ground’. Every area was false or incomplete because of his lack of knowledge and desire for God. Although the relationship with his concubine was monogamous and socially acceptable, Augustine now viewed it through his Catholic understanding of marriage. In rejecting and despising animal sacrifices, his motives were not pure and holy because he knew nothing about love for God.
Astrology fascinated Augustine. A man of good judgment helped Augustine to investigate its value. But he was not able to persuade Augustine to abandon it. That would come in relation to discovering true Christian piety. For the time being Augustine was to himself a vast problem. He did not understand his friend’s baptism. He did not understand the impact of his friend’s death. The bitterness was more important than the friend. Yet the experience of loss threatened everything, as if death was going to engulf all humanity. Emotions overwhelmed Augustine at the time. He became a place of unhappiness from which he could not escape.
Reflection on death turns into reflection on love, restoration, salvation and beauty. The love that we find in friendship is from God. God cannot be lost nor can God be avoided. To abandon God is merely to move from under his serenity to his anger. But the Word of God cries for people to return. All the parts of the universe make up its whole. Far superior to those things is God who does not pass away. To trust and love God is to lose nothing, knowing that all that you lose ‘will be given fresh form and renewed’.
Augustine relates these things – salvation and restoration - to the incarnation of the Word. His confession is that he did not know this relation at the time. Instead he loved beautiful things of a lower order. He wrote a book about such things, dedicating it to a hero ‘of the type which I so loved that I wanted to be like him.’ Because he did not know God, he did not really know the things he was writing about. Indeed he was in gross error about the true nature of creation, allowing for a dualism between good and evil.
The soul needs to be enlightened by light from outside so that it can participate in truth. Augustine’s learning made him proud rather than wise. God remained true to his word and resisted that pride. Augustine tried to understand God through Aristotle. For all his learning Augustine asks in confession the value of his learning. It only holds value in returning to God. Our good life is with God and suffers no deficiency because God is that good.